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New "English-Enjoying" Tool with Potent Potential

Since Amazon's Kindle wireless book reader became global in November 2009, it has become a powerful tool for English education in countries where the dominant language is not English. Many other e-book readers are available, all with various attributes and benefits. Prospective buyers need to consider all their options and their personal needs and priorities before purchasing, and updated products and capabilities appear frequently in this new market.

It does not seem so long ago that English-language book lovers in Japan had to wait weeks for English material to be sent from overseas, or satisfy themselves with the paltry selection available in a few bookstores in major cities. Ordering books through the Internet has changed that, though it can still take a couple weeks to get titles that are not among the popular books of the day. If, however, the desired title is among the roughly half-a-million available for some electronic readers, a book can be purchased and downloaded in about thirty seconds. No computer is necessary for some models; access is much like that of a cell phone, available in all but the most remote areas of Japan. While visiting relatives in a remote countryside area, I was clicking the "buy" button for McGuinness' Early Reading Instruction when I heard a funny sound above me. By the time I figured out that monkeys had come down from the mountain behind the house and were running across the ceramic tiles of the roof, the book was downloaded and ready to read. Reception was fine, even amongst the wild primates of rural Japan!

Many would call a devise like this an English-education tool with potent potential, but what it really offers is more ways to enjoy English, ways that the user can select based on their own interests and needs. Thus, I would term it an "English-enjoying" tool rather than an English-education tool. The capabilities and versatility of these devices is astounding.

For adults and young adults who have near-native or native abilities, the possibilities for English enrichment are infinite. Some models offer a dictionary that can be consulted for any word in the text simply by manipulating a tiny joystick built into the keyboard. Some electronic books come with built-in speakers and will read the book to you. Many devises allow users to download a sample of the book for free, allowing readers to check if the English level of the book is a good match for them, whether specialized vocabulary or knowledge is necessary for understanding the text, and - perhaps most importantly - if the content is of genuine interest.


Dictionary Capabilities

One of the most useful features for non-native readers is the dictionary reference capability some models offer. With this feature, readers can instantly access an extensive dictionary already contained in the computer memory of the reading devise without even typing in the word. Readers move a cursor down the electronic page to the word in question with a joystick they manipulated by fingertip. A short, two-line definition appears at the bottom of the screen without interrupting the appearance of the page in any other way, thus preserving the flow of text in the reader's eyes and the reader's concentration on the material without the normal interruption that even the most sophisticated electronic dictionary requires. The English definition is generally simple enough to be understood by English readers advanced enough to be reading whole books in English, and the two-line definition is usually enough to make the word's meaning clear. When desired, the full definition as well as other standard dictionary information about the word is available on the dictionary page listing the word. Readers can jump there by pushing a single button and then return to the exact page of the book they were reading with one stroke of the "back" button. For native speakers, too, the feature is a boon. As someone who usually checks a dictionary while reading a book with frequency on the order of once or twice a year, I found myself at first playing with the feature to see what kinds of definitions were offered, and then purposely purchasing books by authors who use particularly rich and esoteric vocabularies because I found the feature so easy to use and, well, interesting. I enjoyed looking up words!


Listening to Books

Many downloadable books come with audio capability. While availability of rights varies with the publisher and author, the text-to-speech or read-to-me feature of some electronic book readers provides an ideal opportunity for listening practice, or simply a hands-free, eyes-free way to enjoy a book while driving, cooking, or engaging in other such activities. Many models have built-in speakers and earphone jacks, so users can enjoy private listening, for example on a train or bus, or listen without an earpiece in their home or car, or even with a group. I have used the built-in speakers on a very small electronic reader to broadcast a book to a class of almost forty students, and even students in the back row could hear clearly.

The text-to-speech menu on some models allows users to select from a variety of options. For example, they can choose a female or a male voice to read the text. The pace of the reading can also be slowed down or speeded up depending on personal preferences. This feature is particularly useful for non-native readers because it makes the electronic reader become a tool for listening practice.


Like a Bookstore in Your Hand (Sample Downloads)

Living abroad, one of the parts of American life I miss most is browsing in bookstores. While bookstores in major cities here do have significant English-language sections, the offerings are skewed toward the sightseeing tourist, the language learner, or native readers interested in the country's culture. Browsing an online bookseller leaves one at the mercy of professionally written summaries and critiques hand-picked by the site, or musings from random people who upload a comment with no hint whatsoever as to whether their taste in books might bear any similarities to one's own. While a few online booksellers allow perspective buyers to examine a few pages of text, accessing and navigating through these pages is often a time-consuming process, and the number of pages a viewer can actually read is usually severely limited. It is hard to get a clear idea about whether the book is worth purchasing or not.

Almost all of the selections on Amazon offer a significant number of free sample pages for their reader, often a whole chapter of the book or more. They are similar to the "next book" pages currently offered in many popular paperback edition, where the publisher tries to pull the reader into the next work in a series or by the same author by using the reading momentum at the end of the novel to move them naturally into the next story.

Such offerings are clearly a "hook" to entice the reader to purchase the book. Yet such samples are a fabulous frivolity for people in countries where the language of majority is not English. The reader I use contains hundreds of free samples I have downloaded for my research and personal interest, but perhaps most significantly for my students.

For very advanced English as a Second Language learners or young adults and adults who have near-native ability from years spent abroad, the offering of sample pages is a boon that in and of itself may be enough to justify the cost of an electronic reader. The sample pages can be used to "tryout" a book to see if the reading level and content is a good fit. As a teacher, I often have students read a chapter of a book with the free sample before I order it for our school library. It has saved us from purchases that were too hard or uninteresting for students. More importantly, it has allowed students to find and try titles that were eventually purchased in hard copy and borrowed by many readers from our school library. Would we have come across these titles at some point without an electronic reader? Well, maybe if we put students on an airplane and took a field trip to a bookstore in Hawaii or L.A.....


Easy access section

Some readers also offer Internet access. Again, users can be anywhere they can use a cell phone for access. In Japan, most cell phone users can access the Internet, but the larger screen of an electronic reader makes viewing much more practical. Of course, research possibilities are essentially limitless on the Internet. A book I was reading mentioned a hundred-year-old restaurant in Paris that the writer visited in the 1950s, and with a few minutes of searching I found a picture of what the restaurant looks like today - outdoor café seating and all - along with a review that appeared in the New York Times six months ago. I, too, was at an outdoor café while enjoying this fantasy visit to Paris, but the location of my table was downtown Kyoto. For books lovers, electronic readers have brought new meaning to the term "armchair traveler" and a new way to "surf" all those titles, especially from abroad. 

Profile

Sarah Ogawa

Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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